February Book Log

February 28, 2009

The series continues…

1. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon (5.0/5): I hadn’t read this book since it first came out in the summer of 2007. Somewhere in the interim I had started to think of it as a rather standard murder mystery with an unusual setting. I was wrong, of course, it’s a wonderful book. As is always the case with Chabon the characters are wonderfully flawed. They are sad and human and you love them even though they are occasionally terrible people. Add to it some pretty contemporary political bits (all be it transplanted into an alternate reality), and it is one of may favorite books.

2. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris (4.0/5): Pieces of this book are absolutely wonderful, transcendent writing. I am thing especially of the story about when his father kicked him out. I won’t give it away, but if you haven’t read it, you should. It does go off track in a few places, mostly in spots where he could have used an editor to cut a few pages here or keep him on topic there. A very enjoyable read overall, though. Very human.

3. Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin (3.5/5): Not bad, but not fantastic, and interesting biological text made for popular consumption. Two chapters in the middle were a really slog, though, and I was tempted to put the book down. Still, plenty of neat stuff to learn from this book.

4. The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells (3.5/5): I was rather disappointed by this book, frankly. It wasn’t as fantastical as The Time Machine. Mostly, it was just about a giant asshole and the havoc he wreaks while being invisible. I mean, yeah, neat, there’s an invisible man, and the book it good, but I feel like he could have done more with it.

5. Selected Poems by Langston Hughes (4.0/5): I doubt there is anything new to say about Langston Hughes. Most of this is fantastic, but a few of the really short poems, I don’t know they feel like something he though of while he was taking a dump, wrote down, and then sent to his publisher.

Book Queue Update:
The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
The World According to Garp by John Irving
Drown by Junot Diaz
The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx
Gun with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

Modified Swearing

February 22, 2009

I swear a lot. Really, a lot. So does Cate. We are desperately afraid that our child’s first word will be “fuck”. However, in my use of profanity, I have come to realize that there are two types. There is the type of profanity that only calls into question the capabilities of the moron in front of me who has had his turn signal on for 1/2 a mile, and then there is the kind that attempts to insult someone by assigning them membership into what is implied to be a deficient and undesirable group. For example:

bitch, pussy, girl, etc.: I think there are others on this list that I just can’t come up with right now, but the overarching reason for these is the same: They demean women. Using these words to insult someone, especially if I am insulting a male, implies that there is something wrong with femininity. It implies that there is something men have that women lack, to that end, I am trying (and have been pretty successful), to remove these terms from my vocabulary. And really, “You’re a fucking asshole” or “Your an enormous wimp” accomplishes the goal just as well without managing to insult femininity. Further, I’ve heard girls use these words as insults. I do not want my daughter growing up with the thought that the idea of being a woman is so terrible, that she is willing to imply her own inferiority when swearing at some jackass that just knocked over her drink.

lame, retarded, etc.: I’m pretty good about these already, but they do slip in from time to time. Probably as a function of teaching high school. The same things apply to these words as those above, only the implied slight is directed at those with some form of disability. And again, something along the lines of “You are an enormous fucking moron” works just fine.

gay, faggot, etc.: I don’t use these at all, but I’m including them just to complete the list. There is nothing wrong with being homosexual. Correspondingly, there is no good reason to use these words as insults. This is the current war I am waging with my students. I’ve thrown a few kids out because they couldn’t hold back with this kind of language.

So, yeah, I’m working on all of these things, and I’m trying to extend it to my classroom, but that is more of a battle. Most of my students swear so much that I wonder if I will ever find a way to get them to sufficiently modify their vocabulary, at least in my classroom. I’ll keep trying, I suppose.

Musical Lineage

February 20, 2009

About a week ago, my good friend Michael “Don’t Call Me Ishmael” Lewis did a little facebook thing that asked him to list fifteen albums that were really “important” to him. Notice that this is not your top fifteen albums. So, along those lines, I decided to modify a little English teachery thing for music.

The concept is this: You have six “boxes” to fill. The top box the album that opened everything up for you. It probably isn’t the first one you bought, but it’s the one that made you want to buy lots of other stuff.

Then, it splits into two boxes. In one of these, you put your first “holy shit” album. Not the same as the one you put in box one, but maybe something that came from that experience. In the second box on this row, you put an album that really, even now, grabs you and makes you think of something important moment in your life.

Last, there is a row of three boxes. This is stuff you came to as your taste really matured and filled out. The first box is the album you really like to push on other people. It’s kind of “your” album in that you came across it first among the people you know, and you’ve been the one pushing it. Next is that album that, though it’s not your favorite, you can always go back to it and feel satisfied when your listening. In the last box, you put whatever is holding your attention right now. What is the closest thing at the moment to an album you can’t stop listening to.

So, after that intro, here’s my Musical Lineage

TOP ROW (What started it all)
24 Nights by Eric Clapton: I found this in my dad’s record collection after a conversation about the song “Change the World.” I didn’t know people could make music like this until I put this album on.

Second Row (Holy Shit & Something Personal)
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek and the Dominoes: I think you all know how I feel about this record.

Crash by The Dave Matthews Band: I haven’t listened to this in years, and it’s definitely not my favorite, but I did love it at one time, and whenever I think about it, I can see myself sitting in the back seat of Nick’s Honda as we all drove around trying not to go home.

Third Row (Listen to This, Always a Winner, and What’s on Now)
Sweet Warrior by Richard Thompson: My favorite Thompson album and one of few albums that I really feel like everyone should listen to and appreciate, even if you don’t love it. It’s just fantastic.

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen: Music for all seasons. I always end up feeling good about putting this album on.

Already Free by The Derek Trucks Band: Just came out last month. I think it might be their best album yet. It’s quickly turning into an album I can always listen to. I look forward to spending a little more time with it.

Write to Amazon

February 13, 2009

Look, I don’t do this kind of thing often, but I’m asking a favor of the 4.7 people who read my blog. Go read this:


Then write to Amazon and complain to them.

Favorite Books

February 11, 2009

Friend and Former Boss Jennifer Wills Recently posted a list of her ten favorite books and asked for other to do the same. This was a difficult list for me to compile, but in order, here they are:

1. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon:
I don’t really know what to say about this book other than I think it is basically perfect. The ending absolutely kills me, even now, just thinking about it, it kind of gets to me. Chabon is better than anyone I have ever read and creating undeniably human characters.

2. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson: I recently reread this book for the first time in a long time, and it moved me even more than it did when I first read it in college. I no longer found part I had previously thought of as boring to be lacking. I love the idea of a series of interconnected short stories. This book explains what it is like to be seventeen or eighteen or nineteen and just starting to figure things out.

3. Dubliners by James Joyce: I don’t know, it’s Dubliners. Epiphany, Dublin, good stuff, and unlike much of Joyce’s other work, a pretty easy read. Wonderful book.

4. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien: It always comes back to characters with me. I connect with character much more than plot. This book is all character. Often, not much happens at all, but everyone in it is so sad and beautiful.

5. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving: I’m starting to feel like a broken record at this point. I read this a bit more than a year ago and it knocked me out in a way I had not been knocked for quite some time. Irving does a wonderful job of combining a very intricate story and very wonderful characters. A lot of similarities, in terms of story telling, to Kavalier and Clay.

6. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger: I have nothing to say. I read this later than most. It’s wonderful.

7. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien: I probably would not have majored in English if it wasn’t for this book. That is not a joke. In several very important ways, I owe everything I have ever written to Tolkien.

8. Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood: We all have our favorite Atwood, and this is mine. There are no down parts in this (I usually find one or two places where the story drags with Atwood). I always feel like I could pick this book up and read it straight through without stopping. Another wonderfully intricate story as well.

9. American Pastoral by Phillip Roth: I think this is the first “adult” novel tha ever really knocked my socks off. By adult, I mean, I can’t imagine it being taught in high school, at least not my high school. One of countless books I read because of Professor Milder, who said of it, “I’m no Phillip Roth fan, but American Pastoral, well…”

10. The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem: A new addition to the list for me. I just read this book on our honeymoon in June. It’s in the vein of Owen Meany and Kavalier and Clay. Big, intricate story with lots of wonderful characters, most of whom you love and understand, even if you don’t really like them.

Honorable Mentions: Love in the Time of Cholera, Airships, The Poisonwood Bible, Sister Carrie, All the Kings Men, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Lolita, A Pale Fire, The Awakening, Pride and Prejudice

Album Tracks (Flash Fiction)

February 1, 2009

As I noted in an early entry, I had a flash fiction piece published in the LEO this week. Then, I was writing about the mixed feelings I had about the piece I submitted. How little work it took, etc. Today, I want to write more about how I feel about flash fiction.

Flash fiction is to the short story as the novella is to the novel. It is an uncomfortable smaller sibling to the short story. It doesn’t get much attention, and most well known writers do little more than dabble with it, if they acknowledge it at all. I do feel that it has been getting more attention lately. The point of this, I suppose, is that I don’t think it deserves the attention.

Okay, let’s start by defining the term. Flash fiction, as I understand it, is a short story of any length up to about 500 words. In my experience, most tend to run about 250-350 words. A famous Hemingway bit that gets trotted out often enough is “For Sale: Baby shoes, never used.” That’s six words and three punctuation marks. And sure, its fantastic, but really, so what? It’s six words. Of course, you can imagine all the detail, you can fill the story out for yourself, but there isn’t really much of a story being provided to you. That is really the problem I have. The whole point of flash fiction isn’t the writing. It’s the not writing. And if you have much experience at all, it isn’t very hard.

Eliot sat by the pond down the hill from his parents’ house. He was talking to Wizard #5. Eliot had to make up people to talk to because he had things he needed to tell that he couldn’t tell to anyone else. Wizard #5 was his fifth imaginary friend. The last four had died.

I just wrote that. It took about three minutes. I’m not doing this to show how awesome I am. I just want to point something out. Right now, you are imaging a story based off the information I just gave you. I did not tell you the story, you are telling it to yourself. I just put a few details into your head. What secrets does this kid have? Why does he keep killing off his imaginary friends? Why do his parents get to have a pond when I never did? (Okay, maybe not that last one.) The point is, you are the one who is really writing the story, I just gave you the first four sentences. That’s all flash fiction is, really, it’s the art of writing first sentences and paragraphs. It’s all introduction. It’s a tease. ANYONE CAN DO THIS! All you need is one decent idea. Take an hour and I bet you can come up with five or six of these without much effort.

Now, here’s the hard part, after you right those five or six first paragraphs, write the rest of the story. Much harder now, isn’t it? That’s the point. Flash fiction is, as far as I’m concerned, not much more than a writing exercise. It’s great for generating ideas, but I don’t believe in it as a finished product. It’s just noodling. It’s what Clapton does on the guitar between takes or what my friend Josh (illustrator extraordinaire) doodles on a napkin. There’s a reason you don’t put that stuff on the album or in the book. I sent mine in on a whim, just to see if 45 seconds of work could result in my getting published. I was disappointed when it did. I won’t make the mistake again. I’ll exercise more discretion when I submit something to be an album track from now on.